By HM Government

Wasps, bees, ants and southern species including Dartford warbler and emperor dragonfly are likely to benefit from climate change in England. Further north and in the uplands, breeding birds such as curlew and our much-loved cuckoo, damp-loving mosses and liverworts will be put at great risk by rising temperatures, according to new research out today.

The report, which assesses the risks and opportunities for species in England as a result of climate change, has been published by Natural England in partnership with the British Trust for Ornithology, University of York, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the RSPB.

Describing the potential shift in distribution of over 3,000 plants and animals that may occur in England in response to climate change, it’s the largest and most comprehensive assessment of its kind ever undertaken in this country. Looking at where suitable climatic conditions for different species are likely to be found in 2080, given a 2°C increase in average global temperature, over a quarter (27%) of species were at high to medium risk of losing a substantial proportion of their currently suitable ranges. Although just over half (54%) could potentially expand their ranges, this is not likely to be possible in many cases because of limited mobility or a lack of suitable habitats.

A more detailed study of 400 species included information on population trends and took into account other factors that are known to make species more vulnerable to climate change, such as agricultural intensification or restriction to small, localised populations. This analysis found that the proportion of wildlife at risk from climate change was slightly higher at 35%, with 42% likely to have opportunities to expand. When looking at 155 species currently listed as being of high conservation concern, 38% were identified as being at risk, with 39% potentially benefiting from a changing climate, suggesting climate change may pose the greatest threat to species already threatened by other factors.

The results reflect the fact that there are more southerly-distributed species than northern species living in England, giving greater scope for southerners to flourish from climate warming. As a result, those at greatest risk are species which are of high conservation concern, often found in upland habitats, such as twite, golden plover and mountain crowberry. Other wildlife expected to suffer include seabirds such as the kittiwake, and some lowland species such as lapwing, rare spring sedge, orange ladybird and the triangle hammock spider. In contrast, further population increases are likely for birds such as avocet and the little egret. Other expected beneficiaries include the large wainscot and white line dart moths.

Andrew Sells, Chairman of Natural England, said:

Climate change is a huge challenge facing the natural world, which is changing before our eyes. This report for the first time gives us a clear sense of the scale of that impact over the coming decades, helping us to best focus our conservation efforts.

Dr Tim Hill, Chief Scientist for Natural England, said:

Our climate is changing fundamentally. There is already evidence of it affecting the habitat of some species, forcing them to live elsewhere. As temperatures rise, the consequences of future climate change for England’s wildlife are likely to be substantial, resulting in wholesale changes in the distribution of our wild animals and plants.

The findings of this report are vital to help us target conservation at the wildlife most in need. It forms part of our wider work around climate change – such as the ‘Climate Change Adaptation Manual’ – designed to inform and prioritise action on the ground.

Dr James Pearce-Higgins, Director of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology, who led the research, said:

This study is dependent upon the observations of thousands of volunteers who submit sightings of wildlife to organisations like ourselves and the Biological Records Centre. By knowing where species occur, we can link their distribution to the climate they require in order to make predictions about the future. Such information helps identify vulnerable species which may need additional conservation effort to survive future warming, as well as the species likely to respond positively.

Dr Colin Beale, Lecturer in Ecology in the Department of Biology at the University of York said:

Using new methods has enabled us to be far more comprehensive in this report than anything seen before. While our overall results simply add weight to an increasingly clear picture of the impacts of climate change on wildlife, the wide coverage we have means we can look in more detail at groups that are often overlooked, but just as important ecologically as more charismatic groups. For example, the UK’s uniquely mild, damp climate has allowed the development of an internationally important community of mosses and our results highlight this group as facing increased threat from climate change allowing a clear focus for conservation effort.

Dr Tom Oliver, Ecological Modeller at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said:

These results are promising for a number of warm-associated southerly species. The next steps will be to further reduce uncertainty by working to improve our modelling methods; for example, to better understand the impacts of an expected increase in the frequency of extreme weather events. For species suffering under climate change, there are a number of conservation actions we can take that will help them to persist.

Dr Richard Bradbury, Head of Environmental Research at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science said:

This report builds upon a substantial weight of evidence that climate change is already affecting UK species, and will have further, large impacts in the future. The nature we know and love will change, with some warmth-loving species becoming more familiar, while we risk saying goodbye to some of England’s colder-adapted species. It is imperative that we minimise the risks, by reducing carbon emissions, while redoubling our efforts to reduce the threats to vulnerable species and provide safe homes for nature, both in nature reserves and other protected areas, and in the wider landscapes in which wildlife should thrive.

The report emphasises the need for conservation action to increase our wildlife’s ability to survive climate change. For species whose range will expand as a result of climate change, action is needed to enhance their habitat areas and the links between them to assist their movements. At the same time work is required to protect and create suitable habitat for colonisation where the climate is more suitable as well as to address other issues which may prevent them occupying newly suitable areas.